By Casey Verderosa
When most people think of craft beverages, their minds light upon beer and cider rather than mead, which is more likely to conjure up images of medieval knights sitting around a table with goblets. But mead is very much a contemporary drink, which this year has been helped along by New York state’s farm meadery bill. New Rev members Michael and Lucy Rowell are developing just such a business in Little Leaf Meadworks.
Mead is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey and water and you can add pretty much anything else to it for specialized flavor. “I see mead as sort of a playground,” said Michael. “If you think you can add anything to a craft beer, you can do that and more with mead because there are fewer restrictions on it. Mead can be sweet, dry, flavored with many kinds of fruit, herbs, or spices. You can serve it hot, cold, bubbly, sour, not sour. It’s really versatile.”
As part of Michael’s ’16 animal science studies at Cornell, he took a fateful course in beekeeping at the same time that his brother started home brewing. Michael added some wine-making classes to his schedule and for a final undergraduate project combined the two interests to make mead.
He’s also a certified master beekeeper and in 2016 he and Lucy started selling their locally-made honey under their Ithaca Honey Works brand. “Mike already had the idea of starting a meadery and we decided to pursue Ithaca Honey Works partly to serve as a seed to create the meadery,” said Lucy, whose background is in journalism and wine marketing.
The couple has started construction on their South Hill location, which will house their production facility and a tasting room. They will also have orchards both for growing ingredients to flavor their mead and to bring community members onto the farm-meadery for U-pick experiences. And there will, of course, be an apiary.
“There are not many meaderies that raise their own bees,” said Michael. “We’ll be one of the first meaderies in the US for whom the vast majority of our production will come from honey from our own bees. And also fruit from our own farm and neighboring farms.”
It’s an ambitious business model the Rowells have chosen to pursue, starting out with a facility of their own. The typical trajectory is to start out small and grow slowly, according to Michael. They’re looking to Rev to help them accelerate and provide business and legal expertise.
Michael and Lucy are also buoyed by what they’ve observed to be a strong craft beverage industry in the Finger Lakes. “The business climate with mead and craft beverage in mind is definitely here,” said Michael. “After networking and seeing how things work around here we were pleasantly surprised by how welcoming and supportive the craft beverage industry is in this area. That’s not the case in some other regions.”
Region has played an important role for the Rowells. Ithaca is where Michael and Lucy met. They’re building their meadery here in part because it’s a great place to have started their family. And since the flavor of honey, similar to that of wine grapes, varies depending on where it is produced, their mead itself will be infused with the tastes of the Finger Lakes.